(Thunder Bay police never investigated Stephan Banning’s death after he was pulled from the Kaministiquia River. Photo courtesy of the family)
APTN National News
Stephan Banning’s family never believed the Thunder Bay police’s version of his river death.
First, the police told the family the Fort William First Nation man committed suicide, then they said it was accidental.
It never made sense to the family, said Banning’s aunt Lynda Banning.
Years later, rumours began to circulate that Stephan Banning was murdered and people started to whisper names.
The names ended up in the hands of Thunder Bay police investigators, yet nothing happened, according to Lynda Banning.
“It is still very, very fresh to us,” she said.
Stephan Banning’s body was found in the Kaministiquia River a day after his 22nd birthday on July 5, 1990. He was an ironworker at the time and died during a short break in his work schedule, said Lynda Banning.
“All these years we wondered, how could it be? He was a good swimmer, in good shape. He didn’t talk about suicide,” she said.
Banning said she wants her nephew’s case added to any new investigation by an outside police force into the deaths of Indigenous peoples in Thunder Bay’s waterways.
“If there is a review of cases I would like my nephew’s to be included in the review and any subsequent investigation,” she said.
On Wednesday, northern Ontario First Nation leaders called for an RCMP investigation into the deaths of Tammy Keeash, 17, who was living in a group home and found dead in the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway on May 7; Josiah Begg, 14, who was found dead in the McIntyre River on May 18; and Stacy DeBungee, who was found dead in the McIntyre River on Oct. 19, 2015, and whose death was immediately declared accidental by Thunder Bay police.
Under Ontario law, only the Thunder Bay police can ask the RCMP to investigate the deaths.
A spokesperson for the Thunder Bay police said Friday the request was still being reviewed and there would be no answer until next week.
Ontario Community Safety Minister Marie-France Lalonde has asked officials to explore options to respond to the request from Nishnawbe Aski Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, Grand Council Treaty 3 Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh and Fort Francis First Nation Chief Jim Leonard.
Serious questions also still remain around the deaths of three of seven First Nation youth who were the subject of a coroner’s inquest which ended in June 2016. Five of the seven youth died in Thunder Bay’s waterways.
Of those five water deaths, the coroner’s jury concluded it could not determine what led to the drowning deaths in the cases of Jordan Wabasse, 15, who was found in the Kaministiquia River in May 2011, Kyle Morrisseau, 17, who was found in the McIntyre River in November 2009, and Jethro Anderson, 15, who was found in the Kaministiquia River in November 2011.
Lynda Banning said Thunder Bay police’s failures when it comes to investigating the water deaths of Indigenous people spans years. She said her nephew’s case is one of those botched cases.
Stephan Banning was last seen riding his bicycle on July 1, 1990. His family discovered he was missing after his employer began calling to find out why he failed to show up for work. After his body was pulled from the river on Thursday July 5 at 8 p.m., Thunder Bay police investigators found money in his pocket. This led them to initially determine he had committed suicide, said Banning.
“Then they changed their minds and said it was an accidental drowning,” said Banning.
Years later, the family was told a man from Fort William First Nation was telling friends he was 14 years-old when he witnessed Banning being thrown from Thunder Bay’s James Street Bridge into the Kaministiquia River. The James Street Bridge, which burned in 2013 and still has a rail line, connects Fort William to Thunder Bay.
“He was almost beaten to death,” said Banning. “He was tossed over.”
The family was given the name of the alleged perpetrator who left Fort William for Western Canada shortly after the death.
“The people involved went on a downward spiral,” she said.
The Thunder Bay police received the names from the Anishinabek Police Service in October 2010, according to a police report obtained by APTN National News.
According to the Anishinabek police report, Thunder Bay police Sgt. Gord Boyes searched files back to 1991 discovered no investigation was ever opened into Banning’s death. The report stated that Boyes contacted Lynda Banning.
Banning said she did speak with an investigator from the Thunder Bay police, but, as far as she knew, there was no follow up.
“I never heard a word after that,” she said.
Thunder Bay police director of communications Chris Adams said investigators never found evidence to indicate foul play led to Stephan Banning’s death.
“We reviewed the case in 2011. No new evidence resulted from that review to indicate criminality in Stephan’s death. As with any death investigation, we are always open to any new information that comes forward,” said Adams, in an emailed statement.
Lynda Banning said the alleged perpetrator returned to Fort William First Nation in 2010 and died this past May.
The witness is still living in the First Nation.
“Even after all these years later, there is still a lot of fear around, and a lot of emotion,” she said.